Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Paper Mill

I have to say something about the recent story in Los Angeles Times, "If This Were a Term Paper, You Might Have Seen It on the Web," which counterintuitively associates student writing that entails independent research with old technologies. The article begins, "School term papers may be going the way of the typewriters once used to write them." Its thesis that high school teachers and college instructors are no longer assigning too-easy-to-plagiarize projects that require the analysis of primary and secondary sources, like the final capstone assignment in the Humanities Core Course, draws the exact wrong conclusions from the data.

It is precisely when students most rely on information from websites that it is most important to model the appropriate use of digital evidence in informed arguments. Certainly the U.S. government frequently draws the wrong conclusions from digital evidence, as this Nightline story featuring Ian Bogost of Watercooler Games about the Battlefield 2 snafu before Congress demonstrates.

One of the major characters in the LA Times story is John Barrie, founder of, who is also using the controversy to hawk his plagiarism detection software on ABC News. Although I endorse the use of in large enrollment classes like Humanities Core, so that we can understand more about the process of our students' academic labor, I also think that the rhetoric of surveillance and the metaphors surrounding new technology are also worth noting. For more on the subject, this paper from the "Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism" conference argues that Barrie's comparisons of his product to an FBI-style fingerprint laboratory merit further analysis.

It would be a real shame if the only real research that young people document is the Diet Coke and Mentos chemical reaction experiment currently sweeping the Internet.

It's amusing that the story appeared in the LAT online version with a more prosaic keyword-oriented title: "Teachers Adjust Lesson Plans as Web Fuels Plagiarism" Although I aborted my own attempt at keyword titles, articles in the English press such as "The Search Engine is King" and "The Tabloid Pun is Dead" are using royal metaphors to indicate that literalism seems to have climbed the throne of electronic text.

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